This single leaf comes from a 14th-century Antiphonary that was made in Bologna. The initial D opens the Response for the Office at Matins on Sexagesima Sunday (2nd Sunday before Ash Wednesday). In the text, God tells Noah (Dixit Dominus ad Noe...) that he will destroy all living creatures on earth and he orders Noah to build an ark (Genesis 6:13-14). A few lines earlier (Genesis 6:6) God had said: – "I will destroy man, whom I have created, from the face of the earth, from man even to beasts, from the creeping thing even to the fowls of the air, for it repenteth me that I have made them".
The large historiated initial D is painted in purple and highlighted with fine white tracery on a blue field with similar tracery. The powerful letter contains extraordinary iconography of a sturdy foot soldier in half-armour painted blue-grey. The bearded man with helmet holds a heavy cudgel and a large shield while he stands in a landscape of green hills before a burgundy background (or heaven). His shoes are known as real caligae: military shoes or sandals as worn by Roman soldiers.
This unusual iconography cannot be explained in relation to the theme of this chant in a straightforward manner. A first suggestion would be that Noah is depicted (“Noah was a just man”) as the text tells us that God speaks to him. However, why a soldier and why would he be armed with a heavy club and not a spear or sword? His accessories are likely a deliberate choice. Could the warrior be a reference to the giants mentioned roaming the earth in Genesis 6:4? The great warrior Nimrod also came from this line (Genesis 10:8). However, none of this seems represented here and the interpretation remains elusive.
Our anonymous illuminator must have had close ties to a workshop with a wide range of iconographic resources. The articulation of the warrior, a towering man seen frontally, seems to refer to Bolognese manuscript painting of the second half of the fourteenth century. All this is in line with earlier suggestions at two known companion leaves by the same hand (now in private collections) that the artist was influenced in his choices by Nicolò da Bologna.
Read more about this artwork in our spotlight Mesmerising Miniatures, and Manuscript Mysteries.